Novello Theatre, London WC2
Opened 18 April, 2006

Among West End musicals, the values of actual theatre are rapidly going out of fashion. We’re now familiar with the staged mock-concert, but there’s a more insidious threat: the show that looks superficially as if it gives a damn about character, story and/or spectacle but is actually just a pretext to let an audience whoop and holler in a sit-down hootenanny of nostalgia.

Footloose may not have been conceived in this spirit; Dean Pitchford may have set out to make a considered stage adaptation of his 1984 movie screenplay in which rebellious but good-hearted Ren overturns a small town’s ban on dancing and redeems the pastor’s chastity-challenged daughter. But as staged by Karen Bruce, every iota of human plausibility is removed from the players’ delivery so that the whole affair becomes a kind of panto; the absurdity is taken to its limit when the once-Wagnerian bluster of “Holding Out For A Hero” cues a dance routine featuring a bunch of heroes – marine, fireman etc – like a cut-price Village People.

It’s something of a challenge to choreograph a show about a town where dancing is prohibited. However, Bruce tackles it with all the verve and creativity you would expect from the choreographer of The Far Pavilions and Brighton Rock, i.e. precious little. It’s also worrying that the credits read “music by Tom Snow, lyrics by Dean Pitchford”, with only “additional music” by Kenny Loggins, Jim Steinman et al.; in other words, the cherished movie numbers make up only around half of the music, with Snow and Pitchford’s over-amped ballast being journeyman at best. Stephen McGann and Cheryl Baker are the heavyweight names in the cast(!); as Rev. Moore and his wife, they hardly measure up to their screen predecessors John Lithgow and Dianne Wiest. As Ren, blond flop-mop Derek Hough is not so much Kevin Bacon as Kevin Lo-Fat Turkey Rashers.

In some ways, this show simplifies its celluloid progenitor no more than the stage version of The Harder They Come, which I reviewed earlier this month. But whereas that had recognisable roots in a genuine culture of privation, Footloose was only ever a whitebread fantasy, and this version is a whitebread fantasy of that fantasy. But none of its shortcomings seem to matter in the face of a crowd so determined to have a good time that they even whoop the ballads. Because what this production is actually about is letting thirtysomethings relive their adolescence, or the one they wish they’d had. As long as what’s happening onstage allows them to raucously cheer on their own memories or (third-order) fantasies, it doesn’t matter that the show doesn’t meet basic theatrical standards. I’m all for having fun in the theatre, but I do think it’s possible – even important – to do so whilst also having theatre.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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